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Correspondents remember Vietnam War without asking "˜why?'

Pulitzer Prize-winner Peter Arnett (2nd, R) says foreign war correspondents in Vietnam swallowed the US government's version of the war's motives hook, line and sinker.

Members of the former Saigon press corps reuniting in Ho Chi Minh City over Liberation Day said the US has not learned its lessons from the Vietnam War.

And at least one said that it was not important to ask why.

A group of a few dozen "old hacks," as promotional material for the reunion event described them, met at the Majestic Hotel on April 28 for a US$40-a-head evening of reminiscing about their glory days.

The group included Pulitzer Prize winners such as Peter Arnett (AP 1962-1975) and Neal Ulevich (AP and freelance 1970s), the eccentric Tim Page (freelance-stringing, UPI, AFP, Time), reunion organizer Carl Robinson (AP 1968-1975), and a host of others, a kind of "who's who" of former war correspondents gathering to remember their time in the former Saigon.

Don North, a newsman with ABC News during the war (freelance 1964-1966, ABC 1966-68, NBC correspondent 1970), told Thanh Nien Weekly that the US was making the same mistakes in Afghanistan and Iraq that it made in Vietnam.

"There seems to be a blindness in the American government to understand a very basic thing: people don't want foreign troops on their soils."

He said the only lesson Washington had learned was "not to give journalists so much freedom."

But the stories he told, and those told by other former Vietnam War correspondents, betrayed that there were in fact significant limitations to the foreign media's coverage of the war.

Freedom is not free

North said that he once closed a story about the Tet Offensive saying the attacks could be a major psychological victory, but his editors cut the conclusion from the evening news.

"They used the pictures and narration of the story. The conclusion of my story, they didn't use."

Former AP photo editor and reporter Carl Robinson confirmed that there were certain stories his editors selectively did not publish.

He said he tried to report on political prisoners and people coming out of the tiger cages on Con Son [Con Dao] Island.

"I'd come back from media conferences choking up, how could man be that cruel to other people,' and I'd write my story and no one would print my story"¦

""¦ It's even worse now," he said, alluding to current media limitations.

North said that reportage of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were greatly hindered by "more controls by the military."

Not forgotten

Robinson said he still regrets that some of his stories never made it to press.

"I think a lot of American journalists still feel guilty that maybe they didn't do more at the time to speak out on different things. I feel guilty in some ways for some things I didn't report more on at the time."

In certain instances, there were issues the foreign press corps was openly banned from writing about.

"We knew the Americans were conducting secret operations into Laos and Cambodia, but under the ground rules of our accreditation, we were not allowed to report on it," said Robinson.

North noted that journalism policy makers were in effect blind to the reality of the war.

"They had some very experienced correspondents based in Washington who would listen to the president's advisor and they were virtually brainwashed about how the United States was doing well in the war."

He said he had several conflicts with his bosses at home who would "listen to government propaganda."

Robinson and other journalists noted that they themselves were not immune to the US government line.

"I thought for a long time we were here to help the Vietnamese, but that wasn't it"¦ the reality is that the Americans were here for their own reasons. Americans always do things for their own reasons. They never do anything for anyone else. And I think it's really naive to think that we do that we're really getting rid of Saddam Hussein for the good of the Iraqis."

However, in a Thanh Nien Weekly interview last year, even Pulitzer Prize winner Peter Arnett revealed his naïveté and the naïveté of the press corps when they covered the war in the 60s.

"The US government, their story was the Vietnamese want freedom and we've been invited to help get the Vietnamese freedom. And our view was: so, that's very well, we were."

Don't ask why

If journalists did eventually understand the selfish motives behind the war, as Robinson pointed out, why then did the foreign press not explain the real motives for the war? Thanh Nien Weekly asked.

Robinson's response was revealing: "I don't really think it's our role as journalists to question why something is happening or even the morality of why it is happening"¦ it distracts you."

North explained that the same kind of hear-no-evil, see-no-evil approach to journalism was virtually policy at ABC News. His bosses "were not so interested in politics," he said.

This disinterest in politics, and the refusal to ask why, made sure that the overwhelming percentage of reportage on the war, from start to finish, "remained uncritical of US policies and sympathetic to the official US government version of the war," as Vietnam War scholar William Ehrhart once put it.

A look in the mirror

Despite his hesitance to report on why the Vietnam War happened, Robinson still questions a few fundamentals of American media culture.

"America likes to think it's free, but it has a lot of self-made constraints as well. And what the media in America reflects is that we're the best country in the world and stand for freedom and democracy, but I learned a long time ago to question that."

He said that high execution rates in America, high levels of poverty and the extent of racism and divisions in America were all better issues for Americans to examine, rather than poking their noses in other countries' business.

"Americans have a very hard time being self reflective, but I wish they would be. We talk about how [other countries] indoctrinate people, children from a very young age, but we're just as indoctrinated, even more indoctrinated."

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